Jim Lowe, Arts Editor - Times Argus - February 3, 2007
When people hear the word diva, they think Maria Callas. The Greek soprano was one of the greatest stars of the 20th century, not only in the opera but in the media. If her tiffs with opera management weren’t enough, her affair with Aristotle Onassis and his subsequent dumping of her for the widow Jacqueline Kennedy kept her in the limelight until her untimely death at the age of 53.
Lost Nation Theater is marking the 30th anniversary of Callas’ death with the premiere of “Callas on Callas” February 8-11 at Montpelier City Hall Arts Center. The one-woman multi-media show, written by Tim Tavcar, stars Marshfield actress Ellen Blachly, and is a joint production with the Monteverdi Music School.
“I really wanted to do it to introduce people to, and re-introduce people to Callas’ artistry rather than the personal life,” explained Tavcar.
Tavcar is well-known to central Vermont audiences for the Lost Nation Theater musicals he has directed, as well as performed in. He has also worked with Vermont Opera Theater and the Vermont Gay Men’s Chorus. In the fall, he became executive director of the Monteverdi Music School, a community center for all ages.
Callas (1923-1977) is revered to this day for her dramatic intensity, versatility and technical prowess in opera. She was born in New York City, but moved to her family’s native Greece at the age of 13, where she studied at theRoyal Conservatory in Athens. She made her debut in Verona in 1947, and went on to become one of the greatest sopranos of the 20th century. Her recordings are still in print, and are considered benchmarks of the art.
Callas is almost as well known for her personal life as her singing. She married the Italian industrialist Giovanni Battisti Meneghini in 1949, but they separated 10 years later. They were divorced over her affair with the Greek shipping magnate Onassis. It is often said that Callas died of a broken heart when Onassis left her for Kennedy.
Tavcar has long been a Callas fan. “She has always been one of my artistic life models, particularly as a musician,” he said. “She was such a tremendous musician.” Still, not everyone loved her voice, which could become rough at times, though always in context dramatically.
“She always acknowledged it was an imperfect instrument and needed incredible discipline,” Tavcar said, adding, “She was so devoted to the composer and what she interpreted as the composer’s wishes.” Unlike some singers, Callas had to work hard to sing well, though the results were often spectacular. “She had a very large unruly instrument voice that she forced into doing incredible things, from Wagner to Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini,” Tavcar said. “That took a tremendous amount of discipline. She was just kind of a role model.”
For the 30th anniversary of her death this year, Callas’ will be honored with a lifetime achievement Grammy, and the Greek government is celebrating year 2007 as a ”Callas Year.”
Tavcar’s show, “Callas on Callas,” came about because nearly all the 30-odd books and movies spawned by her life were based on her very public personal life. “So much so that a lot of her artistic contribution has been forgotten or given short shrift,” Tavcar said.
In “Callas on Callas,” 95 percent of the text is adapted from the diva’s interviews and 1971 Juilliard master classes, with only fleeting references to her personal life. “This focuses more on why she felt the way she did about music,” Tavcar said, “and what she thought anybody interested in a career in the performing arts needed to do in order to be successful.”
The stage will be divided into two parts for the docu-drama, one side designed to relive her interviews. “Ellie is the only person on stage,” Tavcar said. “The interviews are more about personal reflections.” The other half of the stage will be arranged like the Juilliard stage where she conducted her master classes, very simply with a piano, a table and a very high stool.
“So, she goes between thinking about philosophy and more abstract musical musings in the interviews,” Tavcar said, “and the segments from Juilliard are about specific roles or specific techniques.”
In the center of the stage, there will be a screen for projections of scenes from actual Callas performances and rehearsals. “It’s kind of like an extended lecture, demonstration,” Tavcar said. “As a matter of fact, she speaks to the audience as if they were a group of fellow-musicians.”
Still, the production is designed for non-musicians as well, in language everyone can understand. “It’s going to reveal the kind of work and discipline that is required to be a musician, to understand the music world,” Tavcar said. “And I think a lot of people are familiar with Callas’ name. They sort of know who she was as a personality.”
Tavcar is confident that audience members will come away with an understanding of the phenomenon that was Maria Callas. “You just have to listen to the recordings and look at the videos to see what all the fuss was about musically and dramatically,” Tavcar said. “She held herself to an unbelievably high artistic standard.”